In his first foreign trip since being elected last month, Egypt's President Mohammed Mursi paid a visit to King Abudullah and Saudi Arabia on Thursday, seeking to repair relations with the Kingdom following several months of diplomatic conflict. The trip also sent a signal to Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that the new president would respect the traditional alliance between the military and the Saudis who have given strong political and economic support to the generals in the past. This is important as Mursi continues his climb down from his ill-advised confrontation with SCAF and the nation's courts over the recall of Parliament -- dissolved by SCAF following a court decision that invalidated a third of the outcomes in the election last year.
Mursi now says he wants "consultations" with all those concerned and has specifically said that he will obey the court's decision on Tuesday that invalidated his decree re-opening parliament. While in Jeddah for talks with the king, Saudi officials offered to mediate the constitutional dispute between Mursi and the generals if the Egyptians request it.
Another purpose of the trip was to assure Gulf states that any outreach by Egypt to Iran would not threaten the Saudis. Egypt is one of only three states -- Israel and the US are the other two -- who do not have relations with Tehran. Mursi needs Saudi Arabia far more than he need the Iranians and the president is returning home with promises of more economic aid to bolster Egypt's sagging economy. While there have been tentative feelers to Iran put out by the Egyptian government, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has invited Mursi to Tehran, the president's Saudi trip sends a clear signal that the Islamists will likely not be receptive.
Without much fanfare, the Saudis have poured more than $3 billion into Egypt in the last few months, mostly in the form of loans and loan guarantees. On June 2, the Saudis put $1 billion into Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves and bought $500 million in Egyptian government bonds a few days later. And on June 8, the Saudis announced that Egypt could use a $750 million credit line to import desperately needed fuel products. The Saudis also arranged a $1 billion pledge of assistance from the Islamic Development Bank.
What is remarkable is that this assistance was occurring against a backdrop that included a temporary recall of the Saudi ambassador and consular officers from two consulates. The recall occurred following violent protests in front of the Saudi embassy in Cairo over the detention of a human rights lawyer. Prior to that, there had been friction over the delay in getting some Egyptian pilgrims to Mecca home in time for the Eid, one of Sunni Islam's holiest holidays.
But the biggest obstacle to resuming normal relations between the two countries was the Saudis' strong support for former President Hosni Mubarak during the protests that eventually toppled him. The Saudis are wary of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in Egypt, due to the Kingdom's paranoia about opposition religious parties and the Brotherhood's desire to establish a new caliphate.
Saudi analyst Jamal Khashoggi of Al-Arab news channel in Great Britain believes Mursi is showing his practical side in making Saudi Arabia his first foreign visit. “There are many signs that the Egyptians are prioritizing their relations with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, over their relations with Iran,” Mr. Khashoggi noted. “Egypt is now focusing on alliances with Turkey and Saudi,” both Sunni Muslim countries with significant economic potential, he said.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have a rocky history. The Saudis rejected Nasser's brand of pan-Arabism in the 1950s and when President Sadat signed the Camp David Accords in 1979, the Kingdom broke off relations with Egypt and didn't re-establish contact until 1987. The two countries were on opposite sides during much of the cold war, as Egypt sided with the Soviets, receiving modern military equipment as a result, while the Saudis sided with the US and was generally seen as being under America's protection. After the peace treaty was signed between Israel and Egypt, the US eased the pain of separation from other Arab states for Cairo by making the country America's second largest aid recipient behind Israel.
But President Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat following his assassination, forged strong diplomatic and military ties with the Saudis in the 1990s and that's where matters stood until the Brotherhood overthrew him. The most recent tension was defused when several Islamist members of parliament traveled to Saudi Arabia and apparently satisfied the Kingdom that they would control the street and keep demonstrators from the embassy.
Smoothing over differences with their neighbor also pleases the Egyptian military and is helping to defuse the constitutional crisis brought about by Mursi's recall of parliament. The Kingdom has backed Egypt's military for decades and has been a strong diplomatic supporter of Egypt in the past. Saudi Arabia is now offering to use its good offices to mediate the constitutional dispute between the civilian government and SCAF. "If the problems continue, Saudi Arabia might play a role in negotiations between the president and the military," one Saudi official said. It is a role the Saudis are used to playing, having mediated in Lebanon between Hezb'allah and the Sunni prime minister at the time, Rafiq Hariri, and in Yemen where they attempted to bring a peaceful conclusion to the power struggle there between President Saleh and the "Arab Spring" opposition.
As far as what Egypt can do for the Saudis, security tops the list. Egypt has the Arab world's largest army and the Saudis have counted on Cairo to protect it from larger, more aggressive neighbors like Iraq and Iran. "Egypt is a very important pillar in Saudi Arabian security," said Abdel Raouf El Reedy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. "We used to say that there was a golden triangle between Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Now without Syria, Egypt is in an even more important place." The Saudis are backing the Syrian rebels while the Islamists in Egypt have made no overt moves of support, only saying they want the bloodshed to stop.
A page has been turned in Egyptian-Saudi relations, but immense problems remain. Saudi financial assistance to Egypt has been considerable, but Cairo needs an estimated $11 billion before the end of the year in order to shore up its foreign exchange accounts and prevent a collapse. No one nation can make that kind of commitment, and the West may not be prepared to prop up an Islamist government until it can be assured that it won't suddenly make a strategic alliance with Iran or impose sharia law. Hillary Clinton is scheduled to meet with Mursi over the weekend where it is believed she will give moral support to his efforts but will offer no additional aid.
Mursi may have made a good start in reaching out to Saudi Arabia, but tangible results of his diplomacy will depend on his willingness to show a streak of pragmatism in foreign affairs that the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies have yet to show in domestic matters.
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